, SELLIA, Italy, Jan 15 – The Grim Reaper has got his work cut out in Sellia in southern Italy, thanks to a decree ordering the village’s elderly and dwindling population to stay in good shape.
There are more stray cats and dogs than people on the winding streets of this Calabrian hillside community, where over half of the houses lie empty. But there’s a queue of elderly locals outside the new medical centre.
“Human life is naturally valuable, but here it has a social value as well because every person who dies takes us a step closer to the village no longer existing,” Mayor Davide Zicchinella told AFP.
Mass emigration in the 1920s and 1960s saw younger generations head to wealthier northern Italy and Europe for work, leaving nearly two-thirds of the population aged over 60.
And with the remaining residents dying of old age, the population has dropped in the last 15 years from 1,000 inhabitants to just over 500 — spurring Zicchinella in August to order the elderly to undergo regular tests to help them stave off the inevitable.
– ‘Check-up or pay up’ –
Poverty-struck Calabria, which in 2014 had the highest rate of unemployment in Italy, has slashed health care funding, “leading to a notable reduction in services”, with Sellia losing 100,000 euros ($108,000) from its budget in five years.
“As a region we are essentially just like underdeveloped countries like Hungary or Bulgaria… nevertheless Sellia managed to secure European Union funds to transform an abandoned school into a medical clinic,” Zicchinella said.
Pensioner Vincenzo Rotella, 79, rolls up his shirt so blue electrodes can be attached to his chest for a cardiogram. He is the first of several patients, the others sitting in an improvised waiting-room which also serves as the village cinema.
“When you get to a certain age, taking the bus to go to the nearest city to book appointments and having to wait months to get seen is not easy. We felt neglected as older people, but here we can be seen by a doctor whenever,” he said.
The appointments, which also include eye tests and orthopaedic care, are subsidised for most patients and free for those unable to pay. The mayor brought in a new tax with the health care decree, of 30 euros a year. Those who can prove they have gone for a check-up are exempt from the tax, while those who do not go have to pay 30 euros.
The idea is to match if not beat the national life expectancy of 83-years old.
Grandmother Giovanna Scozzafava, 71, said she had felt ill for a while but had dreaded going private and jumped at the chance to get a check-up here: “Not everyone can pay private fees. What happens to those who can hardly afford food?”
– ‘Adrenalin borgo’ –
In the month after the decree was issued, 100 residents went for a check-up and nearly half the village has now signed up.
The council also provides a bus service to ferry the elderly to thermal baths reputed to ease the aches and pains associated with ageing and improve breathing, while others keep limber at locally-run dance classes.
But Zicchinella, 40, a doctor who is serving his second term as mayor, is determined not only to keep inhabitants upright but also to attract new residents and tourists to the area — and has snapped up 1.5 million euros from the EU to do so.
In an old pig farm on top of the hill he is building an adventure park, complete with zipline, Tibetan bridges strung high up between trees, a plunge tower and a vast recreation ground for the disabled.
The derelict nursery school has been transformed into a youth hostel and two bed-and-breakfasts have opened ready for spring, in the hope the village — some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the sea — will attract young visitors.
“We wanted to transform a place where you pass time waiting to give up the ghost into an adrenalin ‘borgo’, (and be) a national leader in adventure sport,” Zicchinella said.
And many of the run-down houses in the hamlet, erected at the foot of a Byzantine castle and with sweeping views of olive groves, are being refurbished by private investors from the north, helping defiant Sellia’s battle against oblivion.